-By Kevin Lally

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Parents may want to think twice about coaxing a child into music lessons after seeing The Piano Teacher, the Cannes award-winning import starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman psychologically scarred from years of keyboard discipline. This perverse erotic tale is another unsettling provocation from Michael Haneke, the Austrian director whose depiction of a kidnap situation in Funny Games took "bone-chilling" to a new low on the Celsius scale.

Haneke adapted The Piano Teacher from the novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer out to reveal the dark underside of her country's obsession with "high culture." Huppert plays Jelinek's case study, Erika Kohut, a middle-aged woman groomed by her domineering mother for a career in music, who works as a piano teacher at a leading Vienna music conservatory. A stern autocrat in the classroom, Erika leads an extreme secret life, frequenting porno parlors and even mutilating her genitals in the privacy of her bathroom. Erika's repressed sexual mindset is shaken up once she meets Walter (Beno--t Magimel), a handsome young student who fervently courts her and wins a spot in her master class, despite her objections. When Walter shows sympathy for an insecure female student, Erika expresses her jealousy with a shocking act of malice. But Erika's savagery is a turn-on for Walter, and they have a strange encounter in the school restroom, with Erika taking the role of a taunting dominatrix who demands he withhold his orgasm. As Walter falls deeper into Erika's perverse world, her sadomasochistic desires prove too much for the boy, but their breakup is an unusually messy and protracted struggle.

As in Louis Malle's Damage and Catherine Breillat's Romance, The Piano Teacher's depictions of rough sex can be either squirm-inducing or giggle-provoking, depending on your mood. But director Haneke has a strong ally in Huppert, a mesmerizing actress whose ferocious tour de force here deservedly won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes. In demanding long takes, she brings such intensity to Erika's twisted obsessions, you can't help feeling a certain awe in the presence of this monumentally screwed-up woman. The attractive Magimel, who also won an acting prize at Cannes, holds his own with the dynamic French star, gradually revealing the dark side of his initially charming character. Veteran actress Annie Girardot is shrewdly cast as Erika's mother, her sweet-little-old-lady fa‡ade quickly giving way to a portrait of a status-obsessed, oppressive harridan. Still, it's a bit hard to believe that a personality as strong as Huppert's could be under Girardot's thumb all these years.

The Piano Teacher "rips the lid" off the abuse of musical prodigies, an issue that may have more resonance in the upper reaches of Austrian society than it does with American audiences. The dramatic crisis doesn't always succeed in its quest to be taken seriously, but Huppert's volatile performance makes for a riveting movie experience.

--Kevin Lally

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